What would tomorrow’s ideal city look like? Technology now gives us the digital tools to manage our cities like we manage factories… Harvest and processing of public data, ecological advances, artificial intelligence : the “smart city” promises to solve any urban issue with great efficiency.
We aim at perfection, but let’s not forget the popular saying : the best is the enemy of the good. A 100% rationalized, “algorithmic” city might not be the only answer to human challenges…
The eternal quest for a perfect city
If you grew up in the 80s like me – the golden age of Japanese cartoons, you probably remember those you loved to watch after school. Personally, my favorite was a french tv show called Les Mystérieuses cités d’or (The Mysterious Cities of Gold). A young hero, Esteban, boarded on a ship to search legendary cities in South America. This quest was difficult, challenging and so stimulating; it certainly influenced my desire to travel the world once I grew up.
The myth of the ideal city is a leitmotiv in almost every civilization since ancient times. To each culture its own collective imaginary around it.
For Greco-Roman authors, heaven on Earth was the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. In the Middle Ages, the “ideal place” was the island of Avalon in the Arthurian legend. In modern times, the conquistadors justified their plan to appropriate the “New World” by building legends about cities made of gold.
These collective myths teach us that the definition of an “ideal city” depends above all on what we are looking for as a society.
Precisely, in the course of History, any project to improve the organization of cities started with a vision, a certain point of view, a system of values. In Europe, to advance urban planning, we relied on science : mathematics, geometry and even medical knowledge, as did the baron Haussmann. In the nineteenth century, he got inspired by hygienist principles to optimize the flow of people, water, air and goods. As a result, Paris – then chaotic, unhealthy and suffocated by its galloping demography, became the “City of Light”, with large boulevards.
At every stage of human History, technical innovations have reshaped societies and lifestyles, from the discovery of fire to the birth of artificial intelligence. Take the advent of private cars : it induced a reorganization of the urban space during the 50s-60s. Individual lodges and “dormitory cities” were built when our parents, or grandparents, began to commute between their home and their workplace. This new habit created the hellish traffic jams we’re still stuck in today.
Huge malls with large car parks were added to the picture. We can question this model today, and whether or not it’ll still be relevant in the future. But in order to sit back and take a look at our own environment, we need to leave it. In my opinion, the best way to take some critical distance is to travel.
Mi casa su casa, really?
I was lucky enough to travel a lot these last twenty years, for work and for fun. I barely keep count of all the cities I crossed, from Stockholm to Johannesburg, and Vladivostok to Rio. It left me with a sort of mental patchwork of urban landscapes. I love more than anything being catapulted out of my comfort zone, in a foreign environment that I don’t understand. I like this state of maximum attention that I feel as soon as I land, when I have to quickly understand how to catch the right bus, reach a place to stay or even find one on the go. Being in a totally unknown city always gives me an adrenaline rush. In all my wanderings, more or less lucky, I came to the question : what is “smart” in a city and what is not? What exactly is a smart city?
“Smart” refers to the idea of practical use and common sense. A smart city would use the new technological tools to make its inhabitants’ life easier, more enjoyable.
But once again, it’s all very relative. If you ask a Canadian what is a “good life” according to him, his answer will be very different from that of a Malaysian or a South African. In everyday life, the issues, the concerns, as well as the small pleasures and the satisfactions, are not the same, depending on where you live on the globe.
I’m very aware that, while traveling, I keep my “European glasses” on. My look on the cities I cross is subjective, maybe even biased. That being said, when I look back at my backpacker’s life, I feel like I have seen the best and the worst. Take Singapore : one of the lowest crime rates in the world, not a single act of vandalism, or a chewing gum hanging around and why? Because the slightest misdemeanor will cost you, in the best case, a big fine, in the worst, beatings or even death penalty. Singapore seems flawless but to be honest, I found it boring as hell, very far from the idea of a dream city.
On the other hand, Vientiane or Nairobi, at first impression, seemed frankly chaotic but proved to be extremely logical and humanly efficient. It’s not because a city appears opaque at first that it’s not, in practice, simple and fluid.
Sometimes I had to find my way without even reading the alphabet, as in Kiev for example, where the public transportation network was designed in such a way that once you get the logic of it, the rest is easy.
I was used to traveling by plane, train, subway, taxis and so on. When I decided to walk the Pilgrim’s Way to Santiago (by feet so no cheating), I learned the hard way that without a car, in some areas of France called “ultra rural”, you won’t eat for 3 days if you haven’t planned a stock. It’s that simple. There is nothing, no supermarket, for miles around.
Traveling constantly forced me to understand organizational systems far from my habits, my education and my mental patterns. This is how the journey is always initiatory, and instead of inflating our ego on Instagram, our travels are more likely to remind us that we are not the center of the world.
Sometimes it works …
Twenty-first century cities will be hives to billions of human beings.
Let’s talk numbers : by 2050, a UN study estimates to 68% the global urban population, compared to 55% today.
Even more striking : the population density concentrate on only 1% of the world’s surface, while being responsible for 80% of greenhouse gas emissions. Imagine a heat wave reaching 45°C like France had recently, but in even more crowded cities.
No doubts that the main challenge of the next decades is to make our cities smarter, real quick.
What we didn’t have before and that changes the deal is data, collected via our smartphones, connected object, street furniture (street lights, etc.) or autonomous cars.
Smart city also means “data driven city”, city led by data. There are many examples of successes, but also many concerns…
The city of Barcelona has heavily invested to improve the lives of its inhabitants (or its tourists …) 20,000 sensors throughout the city indicate in real time the parking spaces occupation, and an app tells you where to park, reducing traffic jams, CO2 emissions and waste of time.
In terms of ecology, the city has also been equipped with sensors that signal water leaks, or that optimize the collection of waste.
In 2014, Barcelona announced € 75 million of savings on its municipal budget and the creation of 47,000 jobs.
Another “green” model is Helsinki. The Finnish capital aims for a neutral energy balance by 2030, forcing all its buildings to produce at least 30% of the energy they consume.
In the Kalasatama eco-district, all the buildings are connected to the urban heat pump heating network, which is itself powered by wastewater energy : this is a good example of smart city management.
Perfect cities where no one wants to live
The particularity of our digital age is the permanent quest for maximum efficiency. But let’s take a break and ask ourselves if sometimes, the best is not the enemy of the good.
All areas of our lives are “disrupted” now, including those who used to have a slow evolution, like cities. It took centuries to build them, today deadlines are incredibly short : Dubai has just printed some public buildings (university, research center, hospitals) in 3D and in only forty days.
There’s no doubt we need to improve our cities, but a town entirely ruled by data, algorithms etc., and rationalized to the maximum is not necessarily the ideal city either. We can also value the organic aspect of it, and see the city as a body : it’s alive, it’s swarming, noisy, there are failures sometimes, it’s spontaneous.
The ideal smart city shouldn’t erase human imperfections.
Songdo (South Korea) is symptomatic of this risk, and its story is Black Mirror material. It all began with a 40 billion dollar project, 106 buildings over 22 million square meters, certified green and smart. The streets include computers controlling traffic and public lighting, the buildings are autonomous in the management of energy and waste, each apartment is equipped with screens and videochat to communicate with your neighbors (how lovely). You can remotely control your oven, your washing machine and your groceries delivery.
Plot twist : only a third of the city is occupied. It didn’t managed to attract more than a hundred thousand residents, who blame it, for guess what? Its lack of “soul” and humanity…
It’s a bit the same logic as my failed attempt, when I was a teenager, to build an optimal town on Sim City… I wanted it geometrical, logical etc. This seemed to be the most effective way to build it. Maybe school taught me to think like that. As a result : my city was a complete fail. I decided : fuck the logic, let’s try to build something from scratch, with no beginning and no end. I let my creativity run wild and the result was awesome.
In the same way today, we think we can solve all urban problems by rationalizing to the extreme, by collecting public data and using powerful AI to analyze and correlate them, which we were unable to do until now.
The stakes are elsewhere.
The smart city is nothing but a set
Whatever the area, when it comes to technological advances, we must keep what we call in french the “farmer’s common sense”.
It’s not about innovating for innovating. Plus, does innovation necessarily means progress?
If we operate a digital transformation in some field, we must know why we do it, and balance the good and the damaging consequences. Technological tools make sense only if they make things easier for us, if they improve our daily lives and globally, allow us to do more and better.
All these principles apply to the smart city. Let’s not forget one thing : cities are above all a place to shelter our lives, they are only the movie set of our society, version 4.0. The outlines we’ll give to tomorrow’s society will shape the city of the future.
Therefore, the first question is : what do we want to improve in our lifestyle? Ideally, what food do we want to give to our children? In the coming decades, what solutions do we have for urban agriculture and supply in big cities? Where do we want to shop, from which distribution network? What ethics will we require when it comes to the services we use daily? Another example:
Of course we need to improve the safety of our streets, but will we be OK with massive cameras surveillance and the systematic use of facial recognition?
On another topic, will we accept to change our habits (of transportation for example) to improve the traffic and the air quality?
In my opinion, the smart city of tomorrow will be the one that reduce pollution, preserve the environment and manage resources with awareness. It should also make it possible to reconnect the generations and to recreate the “social bond”, lost in megacities. For example : in Europe, North America, China or Japan, populations are aging and it will be a real challenge : how will we take care of our elders, while the lifestyle in large cities tends to accentuate isolation?
Nevertheless, there are many positive signals. Artificial intelligences can really be useful, not to calculate the height of the grass in front of the town hall or the number of cigarette butts on the ground but, for example, alerting instantly when an accident occurs on the public road. AI will be very effective at showing you all the doctors in your city, their geographical distance and their availability in real time; they will be able to find you an emergency appointment, even on Christmas night, and save you the discomfort of waiting for hours in completely saturated emergency services. These are just examples, but in a global sense, digital tools can facilitate access to health, education and culture. The well-being in the cities of tomorrow is as easy as that.
Last but not least, let’s talk about urban design : it must be practical, but not only. What is beautiful makes us happy. Urban researchers have measured mood variations (via sensors on the forehead, the wrists, etc.) of Manhattan passersby. When they walked in a neighborhood made of gray skyscrapers, glazed, etc., their moods plummeted. On the other hand, colorful facades alleys lifted their spirits again. Our brains are stimulated by complex visuals, nothing is more deadly than monotony! Jan Gehl, a leader architect and urban design consultant, was one of the first to advocate diversity-oriented town planning strategies. According to him, a city that is too square would have negative impacts on public health (depression, etc.).
In “The smart enough city”, Ben Green argue with the same logic : wanting to fix everything by algorithms and data is a trap that distracts us from the real social issues.
Let’s take a step back, without falling into technocentrism and the obsession of organization. Rectilinear, bureaucratic and automated cities were the dream of the 20th century totalitarianisms because they facilitated a massive control of the population.
I don’t believe either in preachings about rejecting technology, “returning to the land” and building an idyllic society, from a primitive model that never existed.
To our initial question “what is an ideal city”, there are as many answers as there are people and cultures. It’s a relative concept, closely linked to the needs and constraints of each one of us. The smart city will not have the same definition, whether you live in the Siberian steppes or on a Caribbean island.
Finally, the lesson about innovation in city management, through examples of success and failure, is very simple : what works is the balance of man and machine cooperation. The latter manages the framework and the optimization of resources, while human beings are fundamentally the soul of a city: we bring the creativity, the unpredictable, the imperfection… in other words, the emotion.